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Pistol Pete

The Man and his Soul

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

(page 1 of 3)

During the first week of January 1988, Covington entrepreneur Larry Smith, then relatively fresh out of college, asked basketball Hall of Famer and Louisiana hoops legend Pete Maravich if he wanted to play some pick-up basketball.

Maravich said he’d love to, but the basketball great then invited Smith, the owner of a building supply store with which Maravich had done business, to come with him to an early-morning young businessmen’s breakfast later that week.

Smith checked his busy schedule and regretfully declined. Just a matter of days later, Maravich was dead, the victim of an unexpected heart attack at the age of 40.

To this day, 25 years later, Smith still regrets his decision not to accompany Maravich to the breakfast.

“That was probably the biggest mistake of my life, not going with him that year,” says Smith, who became close friends with Maravich during the Louisiana State University legend’s latter years. “It’s the biggest regret of my life.”

For Smith and many of Maravich’s other friends and family members — as well as the entire sports world — the hoops star’s sudden passing, the result of a rare congenital heart defect, was a major shock.

In fact, at the time of his death, he was playing basketball in California with a small group of friends, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, for whom Maravich had taped a radio interview shortly before. Dobson has since said that his friend’s final words, uttered less than a minute before Maravich collapsed on the court, were, “I feel great.”

Almost immediately, reaction to Maravich’s death represented an outpouring of grief for the man who, perhaps more than anyone, had put Louisiana basketball on the map.

Times-Picayune reporter Marty Mulé wrote that Maravich “turned a state and a region on to basketball.”

“Maravich, one of the flashiest, most flamboyant players in the history of college and professional basketball, turned the South into a fertile basketball area with his exploits at LSU,” Mulé penned on the front page of the Jan. 6, 1988, Times-Picayune.

Maravich’s basketball career – both his record-setting, near-mythical college years at LSU and his time with New Orleans-Utah Jazz in the professional NBA – had been marked by showmanship and supreme confidence bordering on, according to some, arrogance. But by the time of his death, friends said Maravich had transformed to a down-to-earth, humble, loyal man dedicated to his born-again Christian faith and his community, especially children.

Gone were the persistent problems with alcohol and spiritual wandering that had plagued the few years immediately after his retirement from basketball in 1980. After he converted to Christianity in ’82, a reassuring peace and tranquility had settled over Maravich’s once-troubled soul. In fact, a few years before his death he said he wanted to be remembered not as a hoops star, but as a faithful servant of Christ.

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